This time of year is when I think most about my ancestors, and the thoughts go deeper with each successive year. Today I accompanied my mother on her annual pilgrimage to visit my father’s grave. It’s a good time for this visit: the flags which were placed on each grave for Memorial Day are still up for a few more days, a beautiful display which reminds me of something my mother lived: every time he went on a mission, it was possible that the world would end before he could get back home. Dad’s birthday is the first of June, and that date is also the one I mark as his last, although I wasn’t able to free his body from the machines for more than two weeks.
This year, the day we chose was gobsmacking extra. It’s the Deipnon, the day to honor Hekate and the ancestors. I was mindful of that as we arrived at the cemetery, but then Mom mentioned in passing that it was also the 40th anniversary of her own father’s death. Grampy, as I knew him for the short while that I did, was my only Greek grandparent. His was the death that made me aware that such a thing as death even existed.
My grandfather was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1890, and lived there long enough to read and write before coming to America and having to start the process all over again. No doubt that’s why his handwriting was atrocious, leading inevitably to him becoming a doctor. He fought in both world wars; my mother’s surprisingly robust photo archives include a picture of him mounted on a horse in his Army uniform.
I know this because shortly after my own father’s death, a cousin sent me copies of some fairly extensive genealogical research she had pieced together. Although I knew it was interesting, I mostly only glanced at it until today, when I pulled it out to learn the name of my Greek great-grandmother. Mom always pulls out a few more old pictures each time I visit, and this portrait of Irene Psiakis (changed to Psaki on Ellis Island, because someone thought it was less confusing) was among today’s treasures. According to the letters included in the research, this lovely mother of ten danced with Prince Edward VII, wearing a dress made by thirty women.
My ancestors endured tragedies (two of those children died before they were two years old), braved a long ocean voyage for the promise of a better life, and even put that life in peril for the sake of that new land. Who I am is inextricably tied to who they were, they and all those who came before them.
I am starting to get a glimmer of a hint of an inkling about why venerating my ancestors matters.